Fall is here. For some, this means pumpkin spice lattes, candles and cozy sweaters. For others, the new season brings with it a strong desire for a clean start, getting organized, healthy, and in shape. At Motive Nutrition, we love that wellness has gone mainstream, we enjoy a matcha latte as much as the next person and you can probably find us nerding-out on gut health over brunch. But in the name of wellness, we’re seeing a lot of interest in the clean eating movement – an eating style that promotes unprocessed, home-cooked foods with plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. While this may look like balance at first glance, beneath the surface of clean eating, lies a world of restriction.
The term itself, clean eating, implies that food must perfectly fit into the aforementioned categories to be eaten. The problem with perfectionism at the dinner table? Given all the labels, diets and superfoods we’re faced with, the complexity and conflicting nature of nutritional science plus the unfortunate fact that anyone with a wi-fi connection can share fear-mongering advice, finding balance in the world of clean eating can be challenging at best, or a gateway to tumultuous relationship with food at worst.
As a dietitian and food enthusiast, I can’t help getting excited by a growing community of individuals using food as a primary vehicle to support health, vitality, balance, and satisfaction. But what happens when the pursuit of a healthful diet is taken to extremes, when the idea of eating correctly and purely is so preoccupying that it starts to interfere with a person’s quality of life? What happens when healthy eating goes bad?
Orthorexia: healthy eating gone bad
It’s called orthorexia. Orthorexia is a fairly new term that is defined as an extreme, unhealthful, and often debilitating obsession with eating only healthy, perfect, or pure foods and an avoidance of foods that one considers unhealthy. Eating behaviors can become so regimented and inflexible that they can result in health consequences such as malnutrition, social isolation, and psychological harm.
Simply put, orthorexia is an eating disorder. Although it is not formally recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, health professionals and researchers are actively working on developing diagnostic criteria for orthorexia so that it can be officially recognized and treated as an eating disorder. Without formal diagnostic criteria, orthorexia can be very difficult to recognize. More so, the signs and symptoms are even harder to pinpoint because of the very fine line between healthful eating, food trends and fads, and orthorexia.
Orthorexia often begins with the intention to eat healthy foods, but being concerned with the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem in itself. Over time, a pursuit towards clean eating can spiral into an obsession with eating as healthy as possible. It may start with eliminating processed foods and progress to dairy products, gluten, animal-based proteins, etc. Unlike other eating disorders, orthorexia is not necessarily about gaining control or the desire to be thin. It’s really driven by worry, fear, and anxiety surrounding eating foods that don’t “fit” with one’s perception of healthy, pure eating.
Trends such as clean eating, ketogenic diets, intermittent fasting, gut-health, veganism, and many more have been normalized throughout our food culture. Although many of these are in fact backed up by nutritional sciences, they also help to shield hidden disordered eating habits. When it comes to food intake, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Orthorexia: signs your clean eating is unhealthy
Is any of this sounding relatable or familiar?
- Are you compulsive or obsessive over the health foods that you eat?
- Do you avoid social events that may interfere with your diet?
- Do you insistently avoid specific foods without having a medical reason to do so?
- Do you feel anxious if you deviate from your clean eating pattern?
If these questions resonate with you, here are some important things to note:
- All foods play a vital role in your day-to-day eating habits. Speak with a registered dietitian to learn about the nutritional value of all foods
- Ditch the labels! Foods are not inherently good or bad.
- A positive relationship with food can be developed through a mindful eating practice and work with a professional
- Guidelines are only guidelines and not every guideline will apply to you. Ask yourself, how can I relate this to my lifestyle?
- Question where you get your nutrition and wellness information from. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s likely too good to be true
- Keep a watchful eye as you scroll through your social media and consider doing a digital detox. Not everything is always as it seems.
Remember, health is a physical and mental state. To feel truly well, we must find the balance between eating for pleasure and eating for nourishment, staying away from either extreme and having the self-awareness to seek out help if you are on the slippery disordered eating slope.
By Katie Cohen-Olivenstein MSc RD